WASHINGTON: Joe Biden's immigration reform push received a boost on Tuesday (Feb 2) when the Senate confirmed his pick to head the Department of Homeland Security, as the US president seeks to roll back Donald Trump's hardline policies.
Cuban-born Alejandro Mayorkas, confirmed on a modestly bipartisan vote, becomes the first Latino and the first immigrant to head up DHS.
His approval gives the expansive agency its first permanent leadership in nearly two years, and came ahead of Biden's planned signing of three executive orders aimed at streamlining immigration, including an effort to reunite children separated from their parents at the border with Mexico.
They are a follow-up to executive orders that Biden signed on his first day in office as he reforms the US immigration system after what was widely criticised as abusive anti-foreigner policy under Trump.
The latest measures do not address the status of some 11 million undocumented immigrants living in legal limbo, which hinges on whether Biden can persuade enough congressional Republicans to back a bill offering them a path to citizenship.
The new action by the Democratic president is aimed at streamlining the US immigration process, officials said, with Biden to order a review of all legal obstacles to immigration and integration put in place under Trump.
"The review will likely lead to dramatic changes in policies," according to a senior government official, who said the goal is "to restore faith in our legal immigration system, and promote integration of Americans."
"President Trump was so focused on the (Mexico border) wall that he did nothing to address the root cause of why people are coming to our southern border," the official said.
"It was a limited, wasteful and naive strategy, and it failed."
In line with campaign promises, one of the orders will put in place a working group tasked with reuniting migrant families separated by Trump's "zero tolerance" policy installed in 2018.
That policy allowed officials to prosecute and deport adults who had entered the US illegally. Their children were then placed into federal custody.
Faced with international outcry, and even criticism from within his own party, the Trump administration scaled down the policy. But hundreds of migrant children have still not been returned to their parents.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Tuesday the issue was a high priority of the Biden administration.
The working group will examine ways to reunite the families, officials said, without specifying whether that could allow parents or children who had been deported to return to US soil.
A second executive order echoes a similar policy under the Barack Obama administration, putting in place legal mechanisms for prospective immigrants in their home countries to apply for residency, allowing them to avoid dangerous smuggling routes.
Psaki however made clear that undocumented immigrants should not rush to US borders.
"It remains a dangerous trip. This is not the time to come to the United States," she said.
"We need the time to put in place an immigration process so people can be treated humanely."
A third decree will promote the integration of some nine million migrants legally settled in the United States and make naturalisation "more accessible" for those eligible to apply for citizenship.
There will be a review of the so-called "public charge rule" of 2019 that allowed officials to refuse citizenship or green card applications to migrants receiving social assistance, such as subsidised care or housing allowances.
UNCERTAINTY FOR THE UNDOCUMENTED
The public charge rule "basically created or established a wealth test for immigrants," one senior Biden official said.
Most of the reforms will be led by Mayorkas, whose confirmation is historic in that it places an immigrant and son of Cuban refugees in charge of the sprawling agency that oversees immigration issues, border police and emergency responses.
Since coming into office he has cancelled two of his predecessor's landmark measures, suspending construction of the wall along the border with Mexico and lifting a ban on US entry for residents of a number of countries with majority Muslim populations.
On his first day in office, Biden sent Congress a bill that could offer a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants - including so-called Dreamers, who were brought to the US illegally as children.
But Republicans have bristled at Biden's moves, with Senator Lindsey Graham warning they "undercut" bipartisan cooperation.